Earlier this month, I took off for a two and a half week trip to Tanzania and Ethiopia in Africa. My goal was to visit some of our existing partners while looking for potential new relationships. Now that I’ve been home a week, my jet lag is starting to subside and I’m beginning to see the bottom of my email inbox. I decided to put together a few thoughts on my first trip to Africa.
When I told some of my coffee industry friends that I was heading to Africa this year, most of them gave me some version of the same response – “Wow, have fun. It’s a totally different world over there.” I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical. I mean, once you’ve seen 10 coffee farms, you’ve pretty much seen them all, right? Wrong. My friends were all right…it was a totally different world.
I’ve been all over the world visiting coffee farms and learning about the struggles that coffee growers face to produce a high quality product. Many of the issues are the same across the world - climate change and shifting weather patterns, low crop yields, high labor costs, volatile coffee market...the list goes on. My first day in Tanzania, I heard a new one:
”If we could just keep the damn elephants out, we’d be doing great!”
Elephants? Really? It’s true…one look at a particular plot that had a nighttime visit by the local elephant heard, and I could see just how much damage those guys could do…an entire lot of trees just destroyed, and now this grower will have to start over.
Intellectually, I’ve always known that water shortage is a major issue facing coffee growers (and the general public) in Africa. I just couldn’t grasp the true severity of the issue until I saw it with my own eyes. Coffee trees need water to grow. You need good, clean water to process coffee in order to get a high quality product. So what happens when this water is hard to find? You get creative. You negotiate with governments to purchase water rights in the mountains and run piping to large reservoirs dug into the ground. Then you run more pipes to your washing stations so that you can process the coffee. (Did I mention that these miles and miles of pipe are being dug and laid by hand?) Then you have to figure out how to keep elephants (there’s the damn elephants again) out of your reservoir.
Now let’s forget about coffee for a second and talk about people. There are entire villages of people that have to walk as much as four hours one way in order to get water. Where are they getting the water? They’re stealing it from the coffee producers. (To be fair, the coffee producers aren’t putting up much of a fight since they know people need water too). Every day, women and children grab their water vessels and start the trek up to the watering holes to fill up. It makes it pretty difficult for mom to contribute to the family income when she has to spend her entire day walking for water. It also makes it pretty tough for kids to go to school when their helping mom haul water all day long.
These are hard things to witness…it makes you want to drop everything and spend your every waking moment trying to figure out how to solve the problem…because there are solutions. Right?
I’m happy to report that there are solutions and people out there ready, willing and able to implement them. There are coffee growers willing to find innovative and humane ways to deal with elephants. They’re willing to spend the extra time and money to run water pipes to the local villages to help with water shortages.
The tough scenes aside, it was really great to be able to personally visit some of the place and cooperatives that provided our coffees for many years. It was also great to see some new places and meet new people. I have a potential relationship in Tanzania that I’m really excited about…an awesome farm that goes way above and beyond when it comes to taking care of the people that work there. I’ll have more to share about this very soon.
It’s good to be home (though I wish I could have brought the weather with me!) and I’m looking forward to the great coffees that will follow.